4 Heartstopping Myths On Drowning Every Responsible Parent Should Know


The thought sears through your brain like a newly sharpened knife through raw meat.

Your head tips back oh so slightly as you let out a short breath.

A large pulse of adrenaline cascades through your body.

Then you remember it was just a thought, a possibility.

It didn’t really happen.

But it might have.

Your breathing returns to normal, your heart rate slows, you look around you and check.

Yes, everything is alright.

Children are playing, laughing. Oblivious to your fear.

But it was close.

If you hadn’t looked, screamed, acted on a wave of intuition, that searing knife would have kept stabbing you over and over.

And the release you craved would never come…

According to the CDC, drowning is the second largest cause of death in children under 15, just behind traffic accidents.

750 children will die this year in water.

The perceived wisdom is that people who are drowning become distressed.

And they mark that distress by shouting, waving, thrashing around in the water.

But that’s not how drowning works.

It’s quiet, it’s quick.

The victim literally slips away.

And so as the summer vacations start and the water beckons, let’s have a look at the myths that surround drowning.

Myths that, if dispelled, should alert you when something is wrong.

Very. Wrong.

Heartstopping Myth #1: Drowning children will call out

People who are drowning are unable to speak. Speaking is a function secondary to breathing. If someone cannot breathe, they cannot speak. There is also no time. When a child is drowning, she will alternately sink below and then rise above the water’s surface. While they are above the surface a child will have to exhale and inhale before they sink again. There is not enough time to cry out.

Heartstopping Myth #2: They will wave their arms

The instinctive reaction of a drowning person is to extend their arms outwards. This response enables them to lift their head up for air. But just long enough before they sink. Again. Drowning children are unable to voluntarily control their arm movements. The prime motivation is to breathe. That takes priority. And it takes everything. Everything.

Heartstopping Myth #3: They will thrash

People who are drowning remain upright in the water. And don’t kick. They are quiet. They are focused on breathing.

Heartstopping Myth #4: Drowning children are unattended children

50% of all child drownings will occur 25 yards or less from a parent or other adult. That’s 375 children a year who die unnecessarily, unnoticed by the people meant to protect them and who themselves are condemned from then on to lead lives of guilt, grief and self-recrimination.

Mario Vittone lays out in his classic post ‘Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning,’ based on the work of Francesco A. Pia Ph.D, the real signs we should be looking for.

• Head low in the water, mouth at water level
• Head tilted back with mouth open
• Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
• Eyes closed
• Hair over forehead or eyes
• Not using legs – vertical
• Hyperventilating or gasping
• Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
• Trying to roll over on the back
• Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

The indications we believe to be drowning are, in fact,  signs of aquatic distress, a precursor to the real thing.

And they may not be present at all.

These people can assist in their own rescue – catch a ring, grab a rope – but if this stage, if it was ever present, has passed, a rescuer has 20 to 60 seconds to reach a drowning person.

Before submersion.

So lose attention around water at your peril. No book is so important, no conversation so riveting.

Face the water, scan the water, walk around, count your children.

Rinse, repeat.

Like the photograph negative of your colorful holiday snap.

Notice the silent, the still, the missing.

You may save a child’s life.

As well as your own.

This information is too important NOT to share. Please. A life might be saved. Tweet or share it. There are ‘Like’ and sharing buttons at the top and bottom of this post.

{ 69 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary E. Ulrich
May 31, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Oh. My. God.

Alison, you certainly got my attention. This is heart-stopping. I had no idea most children drown within 25 yards of an adult or parent. That is so frightening.
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Alison Golden May 31, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Good. That’s what I was looking for. Your attention. I had no idea when I read this information either. That’s why I felt it so important to make. it. plain.


Lisa D Liguori - Style Essentials
May 31, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Ugh. Hard to read, but important to share. You wrote it very welll. Did you have a lump in your throat the entire time?
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Alison Golden May 31, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Actually Lisa, I was like a demon with the information. It was all new to me and I was fired up to get it out. Out it poured. But I have had those moments when your blood turns to ice and I know exactly how that feels – what might have happened, and thank god, didn’t. KWIM?


Green Bean
June 1, 2011 at 7:40 am

I read an article about drowning – I think it was one you circulated on FB before writing this post – last year when we first got our pool. It scared the heck out of me! Since then, I am so much more attentive when my kids are in the pool and actually did have an incident where my youngest became overtired and was bobbing up and down but unable to reach the edge (which was just a few feet away) and unable to ask for help. Thank you for the scary reminder as we head into pool and beach season!
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Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 11:58 am

We don’t have a pool, Green Bean, and while I would like one now the boys are older, I was very glad when they were young that we did not. The stress of keeping an eye out would have got to me. The ocean never makes me feel safe and I watch my kids like a hawk when we’re there. Thank you for having the fence, I know parents who don’t.


June 1, 2011 at 8:50 am

A wonderful post that needs to be re-printed every single year…if not more.

I remember the first time I read about these myths, I felt paralyzed. I don’t know where we get the ideas in our heads that children will standout when drowning. Movies? TV?

Sometimes at night, and for no apparent reason, I think about the tragic ease with which a child drowns…I’ve never felt totally relaxed at the beach, or any other body of water for that matter since becoming a parent.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for debunking these four heartbreaking myths…off to share.
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Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 11:53 am

I agree posts like this should go around and around. Timeless, essential information. Thank you for sharing, Linda!


Brittany Baughman
June 1, 2011 at 10:00 am

This so hit home with me. I had a close call with my son late last year when, while he was taking a bath I got up from my usual spot supervising on the toilet (not using it LOL) to grab a pair or socks off the dryer my other daughter was looking for. The dryer was less than 15 feet away in the next room, nut when I got to the dryer I heard the thud and went running back into the bathroom to find him under the water, eyes wide open in fear. He was ok, I still am not. The what if’s still plague me. What if I hadn’t heard the noise? You can imagine now NOTHING moves me from my sport from start to finish when my kids bath, infact we stopped allowing baths almost altogether and switched to showers.


Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 11:55 am

I’m so glad your son is alright Brittany. I know we had a similar scare when we had toddlers. Fortunately they were both in the bath together so I was right there, but the ease with which it happened is scary. And they don’t know what to do! They just stay there under the water! Frightening, frightening.


June 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Very scary indeed. This is definitely new information for me and information that’s so important to be aware of. Thanks for sharing!
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Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm

You’re welcome, Laura.


June 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

This is such important info. Thank you for sharing!

Stumbled 🙂
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Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Thanks, Charise! I want this information out there!


Bibi June 1, 2011 at 6:41 pm

After reading this I feel like I’ve been living under a rock. Everything I thought was right turned out to be wrong.

I will be passing this along to all the moms I know. This is such an important information and with summer being around a corner very necessary.


Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Isn’t it amazing how that feels? Like, duh! Who knew? Thanks for passing it along, Bibi.


Nicole Rivera
June 1, 2011 at 8:00 pm

This is an incredibly important and timely post. Thank you so much for posting it! I am going to stumble, tweet and share this one on facebook – you are right it IS too important not to share!!
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Alison Golden June 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Thanks, Nicole. Those shares make all the difference.


June 2, 2011 at 6:19 am


I have chills. I am thankful my kids are 12 and 10 now and the likelihood of drowning is way down BUT I still watch them like an eagle.
We had a pool when my kids were infants and I hated it. Every day I woke up tense. We lived in that house until they were 3 and 5. Even when I went to the rest room I had to be able to see my kids in the house. Luckily the house was old and the back door was hard to open even for adults.
As you know we are headed to Hawaii. Yay, more reason for mom to worry about drowning. But I can say, my kids are not daredevils or super curious, they wait for mom or dad before taking risk.
Thank you so much for the myths. I never realized them. I am going to post this for all my friends to see. 🙂

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Alison Golden June 2, 2011 at 6:44 am

Thanks, Allie. Have a great holiday, but watch those waves!


Lisa June 2, 2011 at 9:40 am

Great post–my sons and nephews and neices have all been lifeguards at one time or another, and they can attest it only takes a second for someone to slip under the water, and they’ve all seen it. Timely post, too, since we just went boating with my husband’s co-worker and his family on Memorial Day. It’s kind of a rant, too 🙂 When we got on the boat we noticed that his 21 year old and twin 15 year old daughters all had on life jackets. Curious, because you don’t have to wear life jackets on boats, you just have to have enough for everyone on the boat. But to our horror, we realized they wore them because not one of them knew how to swim! My husband’s co-worker, their father, didn’t know how to swim either! Here is a whole family who grows up on a lake, boating and such, but NEVER LEARNS HOW TO SWIM!! It’s a law that we have to wear seat belts for our own safety in our own cars, right? Well seeing as though most of the earth is covered in water, you would think it should be a law that everyone learns how to swim, for their own safety. Kids can learn to swim when they’re tiny, tiny people, it’s just crazy not to teach them.


Alison Golden June 3, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Thanks for that story too, Lisa. Teaching your kids to swim is essential. I always like to say, t isn’t an activity, it’s a lifeskill. And rant away, btw. We can all learn from rants. 🙂


June 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Seriously, I thought all those myths were truths. AND I watch my girls like a hawk at the pool. Apparently, watching for all the wrong stuff.

Great article, this should be in a parenting magazine!
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Alison Golden June 3, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Me, too, Beth. Me, too.


Micha June 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm

I shared this on Facebook this morning because it is a must read. It goes beyond just parents knowing what to look for.
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Alison Golden June 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Thank you, Micha, for sharing. You’re right, it does go further.


June 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

THank you for this great reminder post. As a former swim teacher, I can tell you that this is absolutely true. I have pulled more than one child from a pool, who exhibited NONE of the “classic” signs of drowning.

I’ve posted about this in the past, but I guess it’s a new summer. Time for me to think about posting again.
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Alison Golden June 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Thanks, Marie. It is scary to hear about all these near misses. Yikes!


Michelle Steiner
June 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm

It scares me to death when children play around pools, even kiddie pools! It only takes a second for something to go terribly wrong, and as you point out, you may not even notice it right away. Thank you for posting this ever important reminder to all responsible adults and young adults alike.
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Alison Golden June 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Thanks, Michelle. Tell your daughter about it too, gotta watch out for that grandbaby in a few months. 🙂


June 3, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Thanks for such an important post. I never knew that so many drownings occur within site of adults. Unfortunately, a 3 year old drowned at our neighborhood pool a couple of years ago – in plain site of lifeguards and several parents. Obviously, what we think of as the classic signs of drowning were absent.
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Alison Golden June 5, 2011 at 2:14 pm

We had a similar situation locally too. Crowded pool, lifeguards, a drowning. Scary.


Barbara Ling, MamaBear
June 4, 2011 at 2:12 am

Excellent info to share!

Last year, a captain’ story made the rounds over from http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/ – it really caught my attention so I shared it all over the place.

So glad you wrote this, parents need to see it! Sharing it now….
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Alison Golden June 5, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi Barbara: That post from Mario was a very important one. I’m glad it got so much coverage. Thanks for sharing.


Cathy Presland
June 4, 2011 at 3:19 am

Hi Alison – I had such a moment when my oldest was a youngster and he fell into a swimming pool – thankfully we were right there to pull him out but as you say – heart-stopping!

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Alison Golden June 5, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I’m glad too, Cathy. Phew.


Amy June 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Alison – I’ve never visited your blog before but I couldn’t leave without commenting. This was such valuable information to pass around at this time of year. I feel compelled to share my story:

I was visiting a friend in Utah about 10 years ago. My oldest was 3, almost 4. We were at the pool sitting in the lounge chairs talking while the boys walked around the circle in the jacuzzi (you know the place people sit). Neither could swim, so they were holding onto the sides and walking. I got caught up in talking and (wrongly) assumed that if anything happened, I would hear it as we were literally less than 2 ft away. I happened to look over and not see my son. He had slipped into the middle. I RAN. I will never forget what this moment looked or felt like. It was just as you described, he literally was slipping away. His eyes were open but they were closing. There was never a splash, never a noise to alert me to danger. Nothing but the grace of God saved my son. I scooped him out and he didn’t breathe for what seemed like forever but probably was half a second, than water and more water and more water came out. He cried and fell asleep on my lap. He wasn’t back to normal for a few days but the ped in Utah said that could be expected.

Be vigilant mamas. I learned my lesson that day. You can’t look away for even a second. Life is too precious and all too easily it can silently slip away.


Alison Golden June 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Thank you for taking the time to share your story, Amy. Personal stories demonstrate the points made in the post and take them from the abstract to the intimate. In that the message is made clearer. 🙂


SuzRocks June 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Such an important post. I recently took care of a little girl who fell into the pool (although her mother wasn’t really watching her), and now is brain dead. Still alive, but brain dead.

I’ve heard the best way to make sure your child doesn’t drown is to teach them to swim as early as you can. My mom said they she had to save all three of us kids when we were little. Happens to the best parents too.
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Alison Golden June 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Wow, Suz, that’s so sad. We forget that oxygen deprivation can be just as devastating. Thanks for sharing.


June 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm

With three brave little kids, soon to be four, I worry about this all the time. Great info.
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Alison Golden June 7, 2011 at 11:18 am

Good luck with everything, Andie! 🙂


Steven June 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Wow Alison, I seriously had no idea about these myths – very good to know as we enter into the summer.
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Alison Golden June 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

Thanks, Steven. Applies to everyone, kids and adults included.


Alana of Taylor Made Home June 6, 2011 at 8:05 am

Thanks for this post. Shared it on Facebook! Also, thanks for liking my FB page. Hope you find my organizing quick tips helpful.


Alison Golden June 7, 2011 at 9:35 am

You’re welcome, Alana.


Jaime June 7, 2011 at 9:26 am


Thanks for sharing this. Have you heard of “dry drowning”? When I read the comment from Amy above, it reminded me of a story about a boy who inhaled water at a pool. He seemed to be fine, even walked home from the pool, but he was extremely tired. He died a hour later. I think it is just as important for parents to read about this. Here is a news story that talks about such a death that occurred in 2008:


Alison Golden June 7, 2011 at 9:32 am

Wow, Jaime. No, I didn’t know that. Thank you for sharing. Hopefully people will read the story and keep an eye out for the symptoms – extreme tiredness, a change in behavior, and difficulty breathing, not necessarily with all three being present.


Melody Granger
June 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm

wow, I needed to know this since we have a pond (it’s the kids pool and has natural springs to keep it blue & fresh) and lots of kids like to come jump in!

Thanks for sharing the myths.
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Alison Golden June 8, 2011 at 11:49 am

I’m so glad you got here Melody. Ponds scare me. And they are so attractive to kids!


Beverly Payton
June 21, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Thanks Allison for sharing such vital information with your network. Who knows? You may have saved a life. I served on the National Drowning Alliance Board of Directors and am the berieved mother of Alicea Payton, who drowned a week befor her 4th birthday. Please encourage familys with young children to visit the National Drowning Prevention Alliance Facebook page and website ndpa.org where you can download our “Layers of Protection” position paper. Also visit PoolSafely.gov to learn more drowning prevention tips and access online children’s games and activities aimed to spark a conversation about water safety. Pool Safely this summer and remember: Simple steps save lives.


Alison Golden June 23, 2011 at 9:42 am


I am so terribly sorry for your loss. How wonderful of you to turn your personal tragedy into something for the greater good. Thank you. As I write this we are heading for 300 Facebook shares ever more quickly.

Again, Beverly’s links for more learning on water safety:

National Drowning Prevention Alliance:
Facebook page


Golden State Lifeguards June 25, 2011 at 10:23 am

Alison, this is a wonderfully written article on drowning that needs to get more attention especially now that summer has arrived. It is tragic that drownings occur and in fact they are preventable with the right supervision. There is a second danger that many are not familiar with even most basic lifeguards and unless you are an EMT or Paramedic could get missed which are dry drownings and shallow water blackouts. With dry drownings, children could die hours later after inhaling water.

We do hundreds of pool parties a year and we have seen children in distress even with their parents in front of them. Amazing! When we intervene, we get many responses such as a hearty thanks and at other times we get scolded for stepping in. It is even more amazing that some parents just don’t think it is a problem when their child can’t keep their head above the waterline and when we advise them that could be a potentially bad thing, they might say who are we to tell them how to monitor their own children in the pool.

If we may, we would like to suggest that if anyone is considering a pool party or aquatic event to please consider trained lifeguards. Many people just are not trained to see the warning signs of drowning and may dismiss it. We also know for a fact that it is most difficult to host a party and watch the pool at the same time. All the more reason to hire a lifeguard.

We are extremely passionate about what we do here at Golden State Lifeguards and do whatever we can to educate people on pool/water safety. The loss of life is tragic to say the least and especially when it comes to children. We advise and teach on the subject of dry drowning and shallow water blackout as this is something that is often overlooked.

If any parents have any questions, they are free to email us with any questions such as finding a lifeguard or pool safety, etc.

Golden State Lifeguards


Alison Golden July 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Thank you for leaving this comment, it all adds to the information out there. And that is a great idea about hiring trained lifeguards for a pool party. It’s those public situations where a child has drowned even though so many are around them that are so tragic.


July 3, 2011 at 5:51 am

Thank you! This message can’t be emphasised enough… people really need to know that drowning doesn’t look like what they think it does and vigilance is the number one preventative tool that we have to reduce child drowning deaths….


Alison Golden July 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm

You are very welcome, Michael. I, like many others didn’t know about this, so I was happy, nay supercharged, to spread the word.


Francheska August 24, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I do hope my child will not experience this. It is really so heartstopping! I cannot even breathe well reading these dreadful information. I just can’t take it well. I just don’t want this to happen to every child.
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Aby Jane August 25, 2011 at 9:45 am

Such a tragic way to see your child endure such instance. I do hope this would not happen. But if it does this is the best way to recognize that your child is in deep trouble.
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Debby November 7, 2011 at 2:15 am

People who are drowning are unable to speak. Speaking is a function secondary to breathing. If someone cannot breathe, they cannot speak. There is also no time. When a child is drowning, she will alternately sink below and then rise above the water’s surface. While they are above the surface a child will have to exhale and inhale before they sink again. There is not enough time to cry out.
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Kelly March 25, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Guys this needs to be bumped up – summer is coming and more and more kids will be out swimming. Watch your kids by the water (and of course in the bath)


Alison Golden March 26, 2012 at 9:45 am

Yeah, I was waiting for April 1st. Thanks for noticing.
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Lori June 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I had to read this. I didn’t want to. But I had to. A 9-year old girl in my community is in a coma tonight from a pool accident. It happened at a birthday party at a country club. Adults everywhere. Kids everywhere. Lifeguards everywhere. And still she was found unresponsive at the bottom of the pool. I cannot wrap my head around it. I want everyone to read your post. And hug their kids. Thank you for writing this.


Alison Golden June 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Hi Lori: I’m so sorry this happened. It’s why I wrote this post. ((Hugs))


Carmen July 18, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I really don’t know why so many people aren’t educated on what drowning is. Not that I’ve ever had to save anyone, but parents really need to know what to look for so that they’ll be able to take action if something goes wrong. A lot of parents think they’ll hear lots of screaming and splashing if their kids drown. But if that were true, there wouldn’t be so many deaths caused by drowning. That is why you must always watch your kids around water. Sadly, a lot of people don’t know what drowning really is or how it works. Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14. In 2001, 859 children ages 14 and under died from drowning.
Another common misconception is that it takes deep water for a person to drown. Again, a lot of people don’t know what drowning really is. Small children can easily drown in as little as 1 inch of water. Any place you see water is a place where a small child can drown (buckets, ponds, bathtubs, sinks, streams, toilets etc). So even if you don’t own a pool, that doesn’t mean your child is safe from drowning.
So here’s what I’m trying to say. Always supervise your kids when swimming and if you have little kids, be sure you supervise them every time they are in a body of water. That way, you’ll be able to take action immediately if something goes wrong.


Carmen July 31, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Another precaution that a parent needs to take is to never rely on a lifeguard to watch your kids. Two or three years ago, I read a story online about a boy who drowned (I believe it was in a public swimming pool). Anyway, the boy was taken to a hospital and doctors tried to resuscitate him, but they couldn’t. According to the mother, there were four lifeguards and she couldn’t understand how they couldn’t see her son. Well when there are lots of people swimming and playing around in the water, it’s hard for lifeguards to monitor every single person. Besides, lifeguards aren’t babysitters.


Alison Golden August 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Very good point, Carmen. Lifeguards *aren’t* babysitters. Thank you.
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Paul August 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Alison, thank you, literally heart stopping!


Alison Golden August 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

You’re welcome, Paul. 🙂
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Jason February 16, 2013 at 10:02 am

Thanks Alison. As a parent of two toddler boys, I have to admit, this was a tough read for me. My heart sunk in many places. However, as the coming months approach and we’re all back to the water, I’d recommend this article for anyone who’s looking to keep their loves ones safe. Thank you.

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